Sport & Skullduggery at Chichén Itzá
September 25th, 2020
Today we’re visiting the Grand Ball Court of Chichén Itzá, located at the northwest edge of the site. Just outside the court we find the tzompantli, loosely translated as “skull rack.” Here, the skulls are carved in stone, placed on vertical sticks, a macabre sight in the light of day. In my research of the Maya, I’ve also come across reference to racks of real skulls, hung horizontally and displayed in rows.
I haven’t touched on the gruesome aspects of Mayan culture and I won’t go into too much depth, but these depictions in stone and bone portray the Maya’s prolific practice of human sacrifice. They documented numerous techniques in writing and illustration — among them, group arrow dances with subjects tied to poles and the act of tossing people into deep cenotes from which there was no escape. This would explain at least some of the human remains found at the bottom of the region’s cenotes.
Sport was also an occasion for sacrifice, with losing players and even team captains losing their lives after losing the game. These stone carvings surely served as a reminder on the way to the ball court.
Chichén Itzá’s Grand Ball Court is by far the largest among Mayan sites in the region, including those found at Ek Balam and Cobá. The court here is stately — even from a distance — with high walls and an imposing presence.
Walking through the middle of the court, the size is immense. Measuring 150 feet/45 meters wide and 460 feet/140 meters long, the court is larger than an American football field.
A game called ulama or pelota was played here with a rubber ball that weighed 7-9 pounds/3-4 kgs. The game was played with the hips and torso, with a unique “hip-check” kind of ball pass to the other players.
The side walls here are different from other courts in the region — vertical really, with just a small sloped band along the bottom. Compare these walls to those found at courts in Ek Balam and Cobá, and you can imagine that players on Chichén Itzá’s court would have been very experienced and good at the game. A stone hoop hangs high on each wall and one objective of the game was likely bouncing the ball through the hoops. Looking at the height, it seems impossible. Games supposedly lasted for days and maybe this challenge was the reason why.
The Temple of the Bearded Man sits at the north end, named for a carved figure found inside of it. The ruling king or dignitaries probably enjoyed this special throne from which to watch the game.
The acoustics here are notable as well. A person standing in the Temple of the Bearded Man can hear the whisper of a person at the opposite end of the field. There’s also a “fluttering echo” created by the two vertical walls facing one another. There is speculation that these are design features of the site, not after effects of construction.
Next to the Grand Ball Court and tzompantli, the Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars sits as a short platform decorated with elaborate carvings of the two animals eating human hearts. The jaguar figure is carved on the stones flanking the front staircase. The jaguar was an important animal in Mayan culture and there’s evidence that the Maya practiced skull deformation to mimic the shape of the jaguar’s head and sloped profile from nose to forehead.
With so many skulls and references to human sacrifice, it seems the Maya people may have revered death as much as they revered life. The transition between was made in honor of the gods, celebrated with human heads and hearts, perhaps the only way to reach eternal life among the gods themselves … but surely still terrifying for the chosen ones or the losers of the game.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a quick look at one more structure of Chichén Itzá before we board the magic carpet, depart the Yucatán and head for our next destination. After all our studious inspection of Maya history and civilization, let’s go west across the Pacific to take a break and enjoy a sweet confection of the season.
Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.